The PRISM and Tempora scandals, though, are surprising in at least three respects.
First, it is striking that Snowden is presented as the heroic whistleblower. On several occasions in the past, other whistleblowers had made similar allegations, most notably William Binney, a former technical director at the NSA. Last year, around the time NSA director Alexander was invited at the DefCon hacker conference to scout for talent, Binney already explained that the NSA was "collecting e-mails, Twitter writings, internet searches and other data belonging to Americans and indexing it." Why didn't this create a scandal back then? Quite interestingly, the NSA director had been invited to speak before a room filled with hackers by DefCon founder Jeff Moss, who then held top positions both at ICANN and as a cybersecurity advisor to President Obama. Wasn't there any awareness of PRISM among this crowd at the time? Uh.
Second, why does everybody pretend that they didn't know? For instance, Google claims that they had no knowledge of the NSA's PRISM surveillance program. Yet in 2010, Google asked the NSA to help them secure their networks following intrusions by Chinese hackers, and Google founder Brin was given a classified government clearance. In 2012, they poached DARPA director Regina Dugan, and she joined the search engine giant. DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which not only played a key historical role in shaping what is now known as cyberspace, but also runs a variety of cybersurveillance programs via the Information Awareness Office. Some may find it hard to believe that DARPA (and its former director now working for Google) did not know about PRISM. In fact, questions about the relationships between Google and the NSA emerged as soon as 2011, when advocacy group Consumer Watchdog called on a congressional investigation into Google's relationship with the administration. In the UK,
the GCHQ has spent 5 years attaching intercept probes to transatlantic fibre-optic cables to enable mass-tapping operations. "This was done under secret agreements with commercial companies, described in one document as 'intercept partners'", reports the Guardian. Thousands of people knew about this.
Third, following the PRISM/Tempora revelations, similar programs came to light in other countries, such as France. But those programs were already known, and it seems like other governments are strategically communicating in the wake of the PRISM media drama to admit to similar practices, hoping that the US government will be considered the only scapegoat in this story. And the Chinese government, understandbly, sees this whole PRISM thing as a godsend - finally, they can stop being the universal cyber-scapegoat and start trashing the 'free world' countries for the restrictions they impose on online freedom and privacy. And what a perfect timing: Obama and Xi Jinping just met for a summit on cyber-espionage.
Now, whether the Prism and Tempora programs are good or evil is up to you to decide -- after all, we're social scientists, not clerics. But just in case you want to opt out of them, here's a nice webpage: prism-break.org